Saturday, September 18, 2010

Abandoning the good ship Apostrophe

So, which major Australian publisher's website contains the following, in a bio of one of its fiction writers?
[Insert name of author here] lives in a partially renovated house in the Dandenong's.

Now, butchers and fruit and veg merchants and so on don't make their living from reading and writing. One expects them to commit the odd apostrophe howler on their specials boards. But a howler as egregiously wrongity-wrong-from-Wrongtown as this on a publisher's website really is not a good look. There's no point in spending a lot of money on classy web design if you can't get someone fully literate to write the copy for it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Books to the right of me, books to the left of me

 For the last three and a half years my reading has been what my editor Susan Wyndham of the SMH calls 'purpose-driven'; when you read four novels a week for review, pausing only to shoehorn in the entire oeuvre of Peter Temple in order to interview him for Writers' Week, or to write a full-length review or essay, or to read a book written by a friend, it leaves you very little time to read anything else apart from a few pages of crime fiction every night, for Reading in Bed Before the Light Goes Out is sacred to books read entirely for pleasure, although I must say I prefer Val McDermid's Tony Hill books to this new one, and am looking forward to moving on to Tana French and Reginald Hill.

In spite of which, the house is full to bursting with books, but like most people who live in such houses, it doesn't stop me buying more books, and today I went a bit mad and bought or borrowed about ten, including (against my better judgement) a new Kathy Reichs, a rather sensational-looking history of true crime in Australia, the Salman Rushdie collection of essays and criticism Imaginary Homelands, and the most wonderful history of photography in South Australia from the 1840s to the 1940s, which features a double fold-out reproduction of Townsend Duryea's magnificent fourteen-plate Panorama of Adelaide from 1865.

[NB this definitely counts as work done on the Adelaide book, especially since the Barr Smith Library has changed beyond recognition since the last time I was in it and it took me ages to find things and figure out how to work unfamiliar machines and so on. Barcode schmarcode.]

Anyway, from among this largesse, the award for Quotation of the Day has to go to Peter Morton from Flinders U for this observation from After Light: A History of the City of Adelaide and its Council, 1878-1928. Of the period pre-1898, he writes:
Then there were the massive problems of contaminated food and drink, and especially water, meat and milk. The quality of all three in the city was so dubious that it seemed the only citizen likely to live a natural span was a beer-drinking vegetarian.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


As anyone who's ever tried to write anything knows, there is no substitute for slog. And yet the amount of time spent on something doesn't necessarily equate to the amount of progress you've made with it. Sometimes sitting at a desk wrestling a paragraph to the deck is like wading through a swamp of used chewing gum. And at other times, a decision you make or a revelation that's delivered to you by the writing fairies will mean massive progress in the blink of an eye.

That bit in that last post down there, for example, about the 'four types' of writing, and the decision (more of a realisation, really) that this Adelaide book should and would be a Narration-and-Description sort of book, is going to save me an awful lot of floundering around.

When you're writing about a city you keep drifting back into the uncertain notion that you should be giving statistics, dates and facts about drainage and trams and so on. But it's not a history book. Sure I'll give the dates of things like gaslight and explorers' expeditions. But bearing in mind that the thing that has captured the public imagination about Matthew Flinders most enduringly is the story of his cat, I'll be concentrating more on stories: on the way that Edward John Eyre is remembered outside of Australia chiefly as a brutal, murdering bastard who caused the leading intellectual lights of Victorian England to line up on opposing sides and had a lasting effect on the development of international law; on why Captain Charles Sturt gets unkindly called 'a born loser' in his ADB entry; on the evidence that Colonel William Light was a crazy-brave soldier, artist and linguist as well as a surveyor; and on how Robert Gouger was one of the two people who cooked up the whole idea of a convict-free colony in South Australia while they were both in jail themselves.

(All but one of these people were broken in health by the effort and stress of establishing South Australia and died young. The alleged brutal, murdering bastard was the one who lived to a ripe old age; make of that what you will.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book progress FAIL

The attempt to chart the progress on the writing of the Adelaide book tanked almost before it drew breath, as you can see. But progress has in fact been made, albeit in less tangible ways than counting words. My dear friend Lyn was in town on Friday and as is so often the case I found the use of a sympathetic and enthusiastic sounding board a wonderful way to get ideas into shape.

Apropos the book, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how very much of writing, all writing, is a matter of solving problems of technique. What material to use, and which of it to put where, and why. What sort of narrative voice to establish and how to maintain it. For no good reason I found myself thinking of the tenets of Rhetoric as taught in the US, and the notion of the Four Types -- narration, description, argumentation and exposition -- and how useful that conceptual framework is as a way of deciding what you want or need to say and how you want or need to say it. With this book there will of necessity be a certain amount of exposition, but it'll be mostly narrative and description: stories and images of my city.

I don't think enough writers think enough about technique, especially these days when there's a whole generation of writers who spent their education being taught that grammar and syntax and spelling didn't matter, all that mattered was to Be Creative. This and other forces have conspired to convince that whole generation -- or at least this is the case if the general standard of written expression online is anything to go by -- that content is all and technique doesn't matter, and that it's perfectly possible to be a Great Writer even if you have no idea what you're doing when you write a sentence.

Yes of course the inspiration of the moment is important, as are emotional sources and the workings of the unconscious, and indeed all those things are playing a large part in the writing of this book. Similarly, a book like this needs to maintain adequate levels of ideological awareness, understanding and thoughtfulness; power and money flow around a city along complex but predictable channels. And then there's the material itself, the endless texts and facts.

But all those things need to balance each other, to have a shape, to be contained, to be arranged so that some form of continuum emerges, suggests connections between different stories and images and ideas, and provides a navigable pathway from one idea to the next. And they need to be expressed by a consistent and believable voice, be told in a way that's beautiful and reader-friendly.

And all of that means making lists, charts and diagrams, and doing some serious thought about word choice and sentence structure, right down to the rhythm of individual sentences -- which is something I think about a lot, and will often search for a synonym with its stress on a different syllable so that the sentence will be less bumpy and more lilting, or work away at a sentence structure that will end the sentence on a satisfyingly strong stressed syllable. (Unlike that one.)

It's all as far away as it could possibly be from the capital-R Romantic view of writing: that it all comes gushing forth unmediated and unchecked from one's heart, gut, brain and so on. That's all very well as a metaphor, but on a literal level, the stuff that comes gushing forth from one's various internal organs is usually not very nice. And more to the point, that's the stuff that your body wants to get rid of, not the stuff that it wants to keep.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Picture the scene

I have seen “Dancing with the Stars” and it’s a lot of fun, but the truth is, I have no time so I almost never get to watch television. My dream is to have a new TV show called, “Dancing with the Writers.”

-- Jean Kwok, author of Girl in Translation and former professional ballroom dancer

In the Australian version, I can tell you now who'd win: Shirley Walker, author of The Ghost at the Wedding, former distinguished academic and mother of novelist and scholar Brenda and songwriter Don of Cold Chisel fame. At the inaugural competition for the Frank Moorhouse Perpetual Trophy for Ballroom Dancing (Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference circa 1980), Shirley and her husband Les made the rest of us look really stupid.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shame: book (lack of) progress

Yesterday there was no book progress, unless you count a squiz at the River Torrens, on the map and in the flesh, trying to work out exactly where it rises, and what happens to it between Weir 2 and the brewery.

Today we have a regular weekly deadline and a plumbing emergency.

Tomorrow we have our regular weekly hour on the phone with my father, which in the wake of yesterday's events in Canberra will leave me desperate for a strong drink and a long lie down, when what's actually needed is a head start on next week's deadline.

And on Friday my dear friend Lyn will be in town and the day is devoted to hanging out and having fun with her, though some of it will be spent looking at Barbara Hanrahan prints, and if anything qualifies as Adelaide research then looking at Barbara Hanrahan prints must surely be up near the top of the list.

There will probably be extended disruptive follow-up to the plumbing emergency.

Oh well.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book progress chart, Day 2

I got ahead of the game again today: wrote 555 words on 'weird Adelaide' plus an hour and a half of research-related book-sorting, web-surfing and wool-gathering.

Also checked the street directory to see that the road really does curve away from the river, and detoured up to Montefiore Hill on my way home from Quiz Night (we, The Betty Boops, came second) to check the statue of Colonel Light and make sure his finger is in fact pointing in the direction I thought it was pointing in, and confirm while I was there that the Adelaide Oval is no longer the world's most beautiful cricket ground since they put stupid futuristic domey-looking things on it.

Bit behind with the book reviews, but.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And as the deadline looms ...

We're now into September (we're almost a week into September; gah) and that means that I'm getting up towards the pointy end of the deadline for the book about Adelaide for this series. It's time to get serious. Actually I was already pretty serious, but it's time to get more serious.

To that end, I'm hoping that making a public commitment en blog to a daily minimum of work on the book, a commitment that will shame me into actually doing it.

So here it is: starting today, and working around the regular four novels a week reviewing gig, I must also do a minimum of either (a) writing 500 words or (b) two hours of work (writing, researching, self-editing, faffing around with the bibliography) per day. Whichever comes first. Or both.

And not just during the working week but every day. 7/7. It works like flexitime: I can save up for a day off, or make up time afterwards. If the latter, it has to be within that working week. I'll use the appropriate blog to report back, and to shame myself publicly if need be.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat